Get your raw milk questions answered by author David Gumpert
Right as I started researching local raw milk herd-share programs for an article I was writing for the Edible Michiana Winter 2015 issue, editor Maya Parson asked me if I’d read The Raw Milk Revolution by David E. Gumpert. I had never heard of it, so I ordered the book right away, as well as David’s most recent book The Raw Milk Answer Book.
Over our five-year anniversary weekend trip to Grand Rapids for Art Prize, I devoured these books, underlining full paragraphs, dog-earing most pages and reading aloud to Dan the most appalling and interesting stories and numbers. Despite having done a bit of digging here and there over the years on raw milk, I have never found a more complete, fair, detailed and digestible assessment of the state of raw milk access in the United States than on the pages of David’s books.
If you’re even a little bit interested in why raw milk laws are so complicated or wonder what light the issue of raw milk might shed on our food system as a whole, read on and consider buying The Raw Milk Answer Book to get started, then The Raw Milk Revolution for more in depth and personal stories of raw milk farmers and consumers, as well as a deeper assessment of the data.
Both of these books would make excellent Christmas presents for any food lover like me. I already have them, so maybe buy them for my mom or your friends who love to visit the farmers market and Purple Porch Co-op.
I reached out to David to thank him for his research and storytelling and invited him to review my story on Pasture Haven Farm, which I wrote about first in a blog post last year. I thought it also might be fun to do a Q&A blog post here to introduce you to the issues surrounding raw milk and give you a little taste for David’s books.
Katie: What originally got you interested in raw milk?
David: I got interested in raw milk back in the summer of 2006, when I visited a New Hampshire farmers market and found a farmer selling raw milk. I was brought up in cities, and always assumed all milk was pasteurized. I bought some of the raw milk and enjoyed it. Around the same time, I began seeing stories online about how the FDA and some state government regulatory agencies were cracking down on raw milk producers in Michigan and Ohio, among other places. I had just launched a blog earlier in the year, and began writing about what was happening. I had been reporting previously about FDA crackdowns on makers of nutritional supplements, for what seemed in many cases to be flimsy cases, so I was skeptical of why the FDA would be trying to block access to a particular food many people valued. This on top of FDA misjudgments about prescription drugs that it approved, and later showed serious side effects, like Vioxx. It began to seem that if the FDA is for something, like genetically modified food, then there might be a problem … and if the FDA is against it, then it must be good for you.
Katie: Why do you drink raw milk?
David: I enjoy the taste. I am also concerned that pasteurization kills off or damages important nutrients in milk that could be good for my health. It all fits into my evolving effort to buy unprocessed foods, if possible. Pasteurized milk is a processed food—our first processed food.
Katie: Why is the issue of raw milk so often emotionally charged?
David: That’s an excellent question. I think it has to do with the fact that milk is our first food—initially from our mothers, and then from cows. Related to that, it is a food given to children. Historically, back in the 1800s, tainted milk was associated with many children getting sick and dying. So there is still that connotation, even though illnesses today from raw milk are much less common, and much less severe most of the time. There hasn’t been a recorded death from raw milk, of anyone, since at least the 1980s.
Katie: Why do you think the average person should care about raw milk access?
David: Raw milk access relates to regulation of other foods, both related and unrelated. The FDA has been pushing for the last 11 years to crack down on raw milk cheeses. These have been sanctioned by the FDA since the late 1940s, so long as they are aged 60 days. There’s never been any suggestion that raw milk cheeses cause widespread or serious illness, even going back to the 1800s. But now the FDA wants to limit access, based on the presence of naturally-occurring bacteria that it deems indicative of possible sanitation problems (even though these bacteria have never themselves been associated with illness). In terms of other foods, there have been proposals, for instance, to require irradiation of vegetables because of illnesses associated with fresh produce. There have been proposals as well to limit availability of fresh eggs from very small producers. Some of us are concerned that these kinds of proposals and crackdowns are part of a serious trend in our country to over-sanitize the food supply. There is concern in the scientific community that the sanitization of food and other aspects of everyday life are responsible for the rise in autoimmune disorders like asthma and allergies.
Katie: What is one story that exemplifies that raw milk access is less a health concern and more a freedom-of-choice issue?
David: In Maine, state agriculture regulators fought for three years between 2011 and 2014 to neutralize the efforts of a dozen small towns that passed “food sovereignty” ordinances. The ordinances allowed farmers to sell any food, including raw milk, directly to consumers, outside of state and federal regulations limiting such sales. The state sued a raw dairy farmer, Dan Brown, in one of the towns, and the Maine Supreme Court in 2014 backed up the state’s case that Farmer Brown couldn’t sell his raw milk (and other foods) under the provisions of his town’s food sovereignty ordinance. Rather, he needed state permits.
As it turned out, the state hasn’t enforced the court’s ruling, and more towns in Maine continue to adopt food sovereignty ordinances, allowing farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers.
Maine officials kept saying their assault on Farmer Brown was about safety, but there hasn’t been a recorded illness from raw milk in the state for more than ten years, the state admitted during the legal proceedings.
Katie: Can you point to place where the law, the dairy farmers and the consumers are doing it right?
David: Earlier this year, Wyoming passed the Food Freedom Act, in a bipartisan vote. It allows farmers to sell whatever they produce, including raw milk, directly to consumers. It took some six years to get the legislation passed, but since it’s been enacted, it’s been held up by food rights advocates as a model of what can be done to give people a choice in the foods they consume.
Katie: What is your advice to someone interested in trying raw milk for the first time?
David: I suggest that people interested in trying raw milk not be doing it because they think drinking raw milk is cool, or because they think it is going to be some kind of magic potion, that will immediately improve their health. It doesn’t work that way. My experience is that people do best with raw milk when it’s part of an overall shift in their lifestyle toward eating healthier, focusing on unprocessed nutrient-dense foods. Then, the challenge becomes locating a supplier they feel comfortable with. The kinds of supplier options will vary by state, since state regulations vary so widely. For instance, it’s possible in states like California and Pennsylvania to buy raw milk at retail. In other states, like Michigan and Ohio, you need to be a member of a private group, known as a herd share, where you own a portion of the herd whose milk you are accessing. I provide specific guidance in my book, The Raw Milk Answer Book, for assessing farms and what questions to ask farmers about their raw milk production methods.
Katie: Anything else you’d like to add?
David: The only other thing I’d add now is answer the question of whether raw milk provides health benefits you can’t get from pasteurized milk. American regulators and public health officials often argue that raw milk offers no health benefit advantages, yet there have been several major studies out of Europe—involving well over 20,000 children—over the last decade indicating that children who drink raw milk have significantly lower rates of allergies and asthma than those drinking pasteurized milk.
If you’re curious to learn more about raw milk, start with The Raw Milk Answer Book, then read The Raw Milk Revolution. Really, why not buy both? You’ll be learning and supporting David as he continues to research and report on food rights and raw milk. Check out David’s blog The Complete Patient for commentary on the food issues happening right now.
Still want more dairy stories? Read humorous blog post on learning to milk a cow at Bluebird Farm in Three Rivers, MI.